The Argument: The Poet, with Dante and Virgil, has arrived on the third step of the StairWell, or Purgatory. Dante at the start of Canto 3 has been at pains to explain to the shocked Poet what just has happened on step 2. It has been an incredible, almost unbelievable encounter. Now they have forged forward and have had to fight through obstructions of ice. As finally, after considerable danger, they manoeuvre through, the Poet then encounters his ex-wife from over 40 years ago.

There, burnished with gold that her soul so prized,
The chair she sat on; and beside the gifts
That we’d exchanged in love, but she had seized.

Two rings, a bracelet—pure gold—other thefts
Of lesser value, and there the amulet,
Centre of all, which left me most bereft:

Gold chain, with coffin figure, within set
Ivory inlaid to fill its key-like core;
Recalled to me what I’d tried to forget,

I turned to Dante, if he could help more?
Impassive, though, he stared straight through the queen,
Seated, quite unaware his presence there;

And Virgil—well—to him, what did it mean?
‘I rule here,’ she said. ‘And here my writ runs,
For Midas grants me power which nothing screens:

One touch of mine is deadlier than a gun;
Flesh even turns to what I want, more gold!
Why—’ Here she stood. ‘Once James, we two were fun;

But look now—you are poor, ha! You are old!
So let me touch, and ease your misery;
Your value I’ll increase one hundred-fold!’

With that—her ominous first step towards me—
I tensed, treading backwards, in total fear,
My wretched mind revolving desperately—

Like some wasp buzzing in a locked jam jar,
Below it, perilous waters waiting patient—
And all I did not want looming so near.

The StairWell proving some deceptive agent
Delivering back to the Hell I had escaped
But lately. Indeed, some abortifacient—

For if I failed now, what would be my state?
Distracted by impending doom, I turned
Only to see the white ivory inlaid

Within the amulet, as in an urn,
Sacred, devoted, as some congealed ash
No fire destroyed, though thoroughly it burned.

Her hand reached out and with its merest brush
I too would be a brute inanimate,
And all my hopes for heaven helpless, crushed.

But in that space where time itself lacks state,
As neither forward nor backwards to go,
A knife-edge either way deciding fate,

So there I was, the amulet a-glow,
For why? What secret did ivory own—
Somehow to continue I had to know.

‘Hari,’ I blurted, ‘ivory’s real bone:
That child we had together, you destroyed,
His flesh and blood consumed, and his soul’s gone

To heaven!’ I cried to God. “My dear boy!’
No more her peril vexed me or her touch—
Something had been lost money couldn’t buy,

Or all the gold she’d stored in her greed’s pouch.
And she—as ivory preoccupied
My mind—too felt its memory, and blanched,

Stalled in her tracks, remembered her boy, dead;
One she’d forced down and out her crotch’s chute.
‘I don’t care, I don’t care,’ she said, and lied.

For now, some tear—but one as black as soot—
Tried forming in the corner of her eye,
But finding release from her flesh, could not.

Held back, held onto, so how could she cry?
Where was release? Within, a speck before
Not visible, now half-crawled out, a fly

Lodged on her duct, so well fed, dripping spores,
Bloated, and like its mistress, simply stuck
There: far too fat to leave, effect a cure.

And yet, half out this way, wriggling—a crack
Appeared in her countenance, as askew
Eye saw the fly and memory brought back

The clinic—killing—and the wrong she knew
She’d done—dead child of whom I only dream,
How in my heart my being longs for you!

Yet, yet … she took your life before your name
Was ever called—who are you? And what be?
See us, me too, this golden waste of shame

Around—deserts of her idolatry!
But she, constricted, choked and rendered dumb,
Could hardly move, much less attack, touch me.

That fatal moment when God’s judgement comes,
Which every human gets to at some point,
Deciding whether they go up, slip down,

And now, her eye blotted as by black paint,
Disfigured as its fly expanded forth,
She turned, staggered as one about to faint,

But holding up until she felt support—
Grasping the amulet, pressing in my hand,
Rendering back to me our dead child’s worth

In ivory. And as she did I understood
Or thought I did—she now hysterical,
Yet silent as a block of hardest wood

For nothing could come out, compressed withal;
We both may, shocked, have stayed there till doom’s day;
But short steps to the edge, that was all,

As Dante herded, bid us not delay;
The desert-ocean had its golden shore,
A precipice on which last outcomes played.

But what she did next, why, I wasn’t sure:
Collapsing down as Crassus did, his throat
To be the moat on which the Parthians poured

Gold loved so much by him. Another note,
However, sounded as of some release:
A flapping, light, as if about to float,

And not that hostile buzzing of disease
Infecting her eye; I looked, and there, red
Which black before, was struggling but to seize

Its living back, which for so long had fled;
So now in metamorphosis red changed,
First black to red and then even that bled

Away. At last, all had to be expunged.
Around my knees she clung, began to wail,
Her very eyes—liquefying squeezed sponges—

If that her tears so long held in her soul
Might finally be free—but fluttering,
I saw it, heard a new voice say it all:

The fly—no longer one—now took to wing,
A butterfly so beautiful, so light,
So graceful, its sight induced in me song—

Charged and transported—I’d made paradise,
At least in that moment. I wondered hard
To see it soar so fragile, free in flight,

But more still—a wonder I preferred:
Below, gold altered so, its dust to brown
With shoots of green, as if the conscience stirred

Meant earth returned, reclaimed its own,
And what was dead might incredibly live
Through Him whose dying, death couldn’t keep down.

Quiet, she stood beside me now. ‘Forgive,’
At last, she said, and what else could I do?
‘With all my heart,’ I said, ‘But I must leave.’

But now beside us, stood Dante, Virgil too,
Standing as if awaiting some last act
Which I’d commission though what, I didn’t know.

Ahead, the ground her butterfly had raked
With aerial beauty, now seemed fertile soil,
Living and moist, half solid and half lake.

My palm felt warm: in it, about to sail,
I felt the amulet expanding fast
Eager to launch and be free of its gaol.

I knew then what to do: one motion cast
The gold away and ivory in it.
See, how it flashed in flight, and fell at last

Into the lake-land’s alive, living pit,
Wherein, not sinking, but like a small boat
Held up, and following with innate wit

Her butterfly on its long, distant float.
How tiny—ivory in such a big sea,
But even so it seemed bigger, full of hope:

Indeed, as I strained my eyes, tried to see
More, yes, becoming clear, expanding, there
The gold dissolving, but not ivory—

I saw its shape take form, taking in air,
Enlarging as if new breathing began—
And in my heart of hearts I found a prayer,

A blessing: I was seeing my lost son,
Whom she had killed, adrift, and in pursuit
Of where his mother’s butterfly would land.

I waved—like some lost soul’s desperate salute;
Perhaps his eyes were formed and he’d respond—
Or lips cry, ‘Father’! But his lips were mute.

As slowly the ivory confined went beyond
My vision, I felt my being shut down,
Go quiet, struggling so to understand—

My breath to hardly breathe, or heart to pound.
Yet all the while, as sight became a speck
On the cruel world’s vast and receding round,

I saw the body form: its head from neck,
Limbs shaping outwards in perfect legs, arms;
I sensed his blood even, suffuse his cheeks;

And as I did my inner self went calm.
I turned, full knowing I’d not see again
My precious boy; yet now what was, was balm.

Heroic child, though you were never born,
Like Herakles to the furthest western point
To find Hesperides, fearless you’d gone;

Over the horizon’s edge, the while each joint
Of you reformed itself into the one
I call, ‘My son’. You did not disappoint.

She stood there, still crying, tears still not done;
Till Dante touched her shoulder—so light, deft,
I’m sure she barely felt; but change came on,

As nakedness is altered once it’s dressed,
As if the honey of his hands allowed
Her emptiness to have some sweetness left.

‘Hari,’ I said, ‘You’ve cried. I too broke vows;
And now our boy flies to the Western Isles
Whom we may never see just once—God knows

His living eyes. So let us without guile
Forgive; commit to love our other child;
At last then—’ here I choked—‘end this turmoil:

Conclude today what our mad years made wild.’
She stood, she looked for all the world as lost,
Drained—majesty void, divested, and grown old;

Who’d think to grow so rich might end a cost?
Had even Dante’s touch restored her soul?
I sensed beside me Virgil anxious most

To move on—we could not let Hari stall
Our progress: other levels beckoned near,
Already time ran out. I felt the pull

Ahead. ‘Hari, listen—we’ve lost what’s dear—
Almost ourselves as well in what we did;
I must go, climb further and leave you here,

But you must not permit your pain be hid,
Returning to those sterile, golden shores,
Pretending Midas can be your true god.

Your butterfly’s exposed that god’s lush flaws;
Gird yourself, and prepare to follow him
When grieving’s done and ego’s emptied, poor.

She stirred then—tremulous, a sort of whimper.
Finally, ‘Why bring me out of the womb?
Why not be dead before I have a name?

Why live where I can never be at home?
Why knees receive me and why breasts to nurse?
Why not in darkness stay than living roam?

Perish the day my father blessed my birth
And said, ‘O joy, to us a daughter’s born.
No, rather, begetting, let him be cursed.’

With that she stopped, and teetered over, swooned.
I caught her just in time. With Virgil’s help
We laid her where fresh lilies lately grown

Adorned a bank of solid earth, not pelf,
All that was gone—a new world dawned; and she—
A beauty sleeping there—might come to health

Once some angelic prince, but never me,
Arrived and with one kiss her soul would start.
But we’d no time to dither, destiny

Must run its course. To see her broke my heart
Thus on the ground. But Dante urged the way
Before, and going meant we’d shed the hurt.

So, one last time, I knelt just where she laid
And gently kissed her forehead, and said, ‘Bless.’
At last some sort of peace between us made.

Not looking back, but that last tenderness
I treasured in my soul and more beside—
Where had he flown—my son—I could not guess?

Onward, both Dante, Virgil with huge strides
Pressed forward, as if leaving me behind,
So dilatory I, and now the gulf so wide;

I ran as one possessed, or out of mind,
To catch them up, when round a sudden bend
They disappeared, so ominous a sign:

To lose my mentors and come to this end—
How would I fare without their wisdom, love?
I raced with all the strength I had to mend

How far apart we were—and reached the curve
Where they’d gone round, but as I did stopped short,
Amazed—before my eyes, rising above

The whole landscape, stood a bridge, metal, taut,
All shiny, surface smooth as polished steel—
Far side a building, political, fraught

With all of thinking’s miscegenated ills:
A school, to wit, where education deals.



James Sale is a worldwide thought leader on motivation: he has had 4 books on the topic published by Routledge, and over 700 management consultants in 15 countries use his products. James is also a feature writer on culture for The Epoch Times. He has written poetry for over 50 years and has had 9 collections published. He won First Prize in the Society’s 2017 Competition and his next collection, The English Cantos Volume 1: HellWard is due shortly. For more on this, go to https://englishcantos.home.blog. He can be contacted at james@motivationalmaps.com.

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20 Responses

  1. Andrew Benson Brown

    Love this extract on so many levels, James. It is full of fabulous imagery: the “wasp buzzing in a locked jam jar,” “crotch’s chute;” the analogy to Crassus’ legendary death; “thinking’s miscegenated ills.” Lots of imaginative details, too—your ex-wife’s Midas abilities combined with the revelation of the son she destroyed makes for a very poignant scene. Best of all are the transformations leading up to meeting your lost son: the stuck fly evoking the memory of the abortion, bleeding away, turning into a butterfly, raking the fertile soil. The pathos is potent here, making this scene among the very best that I have read in contemporary narrative poetry. A lot to look forward to when StairWell comes out!

  2. James Sale

    Thanks Andrew – appreciate your response and also your deep insight into what is going on here. Indeed, this is possibly the most personal thing I have ever written and one has to remember that Apollo is the god of healing as well as the god of poetry, which is one reason why poetry is so necessary.

    • Andrew Benson Brown

      Apollo also had a rather terrible side to him, and could be a bit string-happy with his plague arrows from on high. I interpret this to mean that you will bludgeon poetry’s enemies with copies of your hardcover edition when it comes out.

      • James Sale

        Thanks Andrew, but I am hoping that by the time I reach heaven – if I reach heaven – I won’t need to bash anybody because I’ll have more important things on my mind, indeed on my very spirit! That said, a hardcover edition of the book would be an additional benefit in this life, now!

  3. The Mindflayer

    Love this extract, particularly the Arthurian mood and atmosphere which seems new for the English Cantos: the beauty asleep among the lilies, the kiss to the forehead which is one of bittersweet healing and farewell, and the magical transformation of the butterfly-child, as wondrous and fantastical as anything in Spenser. The underlying pathos of this is almost unbearably sharp. Deeply moving.

  4. James Sale

    Thank you Mindflayer. That it has moved you, I am moved; and I know that you are a Spenser fanatic and expert, so comparing me with your great hero is wondrous praise. I am humbled and exalted by it.

  5. Brian Yapko

    James, I am astonished and deeply moved by the depth and scope of your work. I think it would take quite some time to work out most of what you have embedded in terms of symbolism, allusions… (e.g. – naive question – Is the fly in the poem a reference to beelzebub, the lord of flies? It would make sense to me given the context and the grand scale of the piece.) But I can appreciate the intricacy and craft that has gone into your Canto. As it happens, I just spent three months (months!) reading Dante’s Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso and just in time because it makes me far more capable of appreciating what you have done and its ambitious scope. If I’m reading it right, your Stairwell is a wonderful corollary to Dante’s mountain in Purgatory.

    On a more personal level, what this poem achieves is astonishing. You’ve taken a personal tragedy and you’ve magnified it into an issue of cosmic proportion and you’ve done so organically and with superb taste. In less skilled hands, a poem like this could have come across as either boring, pompous or steeped in bathos. It is none of these things. Instead, you have successfully universalized your personal history in a way which manages to retain humility, is very moving and absolutely stunning. This is no window into the mind of a fine poet. This is a window into your very soul. How brave you were to write it and what a privilege it is to read it.

    • James Sale

      Hi Brian, thank you so much for such a deeply felt response to my work. At the end of the day, it’s not fame or money that is important, but how the work impacts others – and here affecting them at an emotional (as opposed to a merely intellectual) level is key. I am glad you have been reading Dante – the Master – for there is so much to learn in his poetry, and for me he has been the key to unlocking the epic in English; one simply cannot imitate Milton in English without falling into parody – as Keats found, and I did myself many years ago when I tried! And yes, StairWell is my equivalent take on Dante’s Purgatory. The final and third sequence is to be called PassageWay – and I am sure you can appreciate it is going to be the most difficult to write.

      As for your question, I am always loathe to answer only because I do not wish to restrict what other people see or find in the verse. It was Socrates who said, ‘I soon realised that poets do not compose their poems with real knowledge, but by inborn talent and inspiration, like seers and prophets who also say many things without any understanding of what they say . . .’ I might phrase this differently myself, but in essence it is true, for one does not write poetry, but true poetry is written through one. The Muse – the great Spirit – is always the originator of creativity and it is her presence that we seek as we set out to write.

      But in answer to your question: remorse leads to despair, and suicide in the case of Judas; but repentance leads to life. And the sign of repentance is the ‘tear’. What I think is happening in this section is the forced exorcism of the evil one – Beelzebub, the lord of the flies – as the tear of repentance becomes manifest. It is coming out from the eye because the eyes are the windows of the soul. The transformation to the butterfly is possible because ‘Through Him whose dying, death couldn’t keep down’. At this stage I am coy about naming ‘Him’, as Dante was (but we will reach that point where we become explicit about ‘Him’ in PassageWay), but I am obliquely referring to St Augustine’s idea that God from all evil is still able to produce all good and that no weapon aimed against God works because He ‘is able’ to turn all things to His own purposes. Indeed, as I write this now I realise that I am one too who has been turned to His purpose! Thanks again – and oh! Would love to use your line about window into the soul as promo blurb? I am sure you are OK with that. Do visit my Widercircle site and see whether you have something to contribute: https://englishcantos.home.blog/the-wider-circle/#havenofdante

      • Brian Yapko

        James, thanks for the detailed information which allows me to enjoy your extraordinary work even more! And of course you may use my words — anytime!

  6. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    James, this is a stunning piece of fearless writing. Every raw emotion is tangible. Every vivid image serves to enhance those emotions, which took this reader on a rollercoaster of a breathtaking ride through the dark realms of despair and loathing to the beauty and release of forgiveness and love. When words rise from the page to envelop me in scenes that have my heart pounding along the heart of the protagonist, recoiling at flies emerging from eyes, and rejoicing in the birth of a miraculous butterfly… I know I’ve read a masterpiece. I would imagine it took an awful lot of emotional energy to write this and I’m grateful for the depth of wisdom it offers. I’m also intrigued by the ivory… I’m pondering on the underlying meaning of ivory. I know you touch upon the organic… the ‘bone’. I’m thinking of the mindless slaughter of magnificent creatures just for the their monetary value and the aesthetic appeal of trinkets made from tusks, which would be in keeping with your message. Am I missing something?
    James, thank you!

    • James Sale

      Hi Susan – thanks for your heartfelt appreciation of my piece. If only all readers could respond as you do – to feel it in the mind’s eye and imaginatively engage with the journey! I don’t think you are missing anything. But I did have a piece of ivory encased in solid gold, and the shape was like one of the Egyptian mummies. So, a true kind of incident which I am allegorising into something bigger. What struck me about it was the way the ‘living’ – or organic – ivory was entombed in solid gold. It seemed to me a metaphor for the danger of riches and how the rich like to stop change, so that they can hold onto their riches – it’s the status quo, basically, whose actions run consistently this way through history. So you are quite right about the elephants – the living being sacrificed for greed. That is why, the gold dissolves, but the ivory is activated when the riches are thrown away … Thanks again.

  7. Cynthia Erlandson

    This is amazing. I caught my breath at the allusion to Job, with whose agonies, questions, and expressions I have always felt deep sympathy.

    • James Sale

      Well spotted, Cynthia. One does not write poems to generate allusions, but allusions can be extremely powerful if handled well. Also, one needs to remember when considering epic that the Book of Job is the Hebrew epic which is up there with the greatest – it’s mixture of poetry and ‘theodicy’ is so potent. I used a relatively recent translation of Job by David Wolfers as the source of my versification. He claimed that most translations of the Hebrew were incorrect. Whether right or wrong, certainly some of his lines were astonishing. From chapter 3, for example, this:
      I should have slept then, there had been repose for me
      With the kings and councillors of the earth
      Who built up the wastes to themselves,
      Or with princes, who once had gold,
      Who filled their houses with riches,
      Or as a concealed abortion I might never have existed,
      As the infants that never see the light

      The translation and its accompanying notes (which are heavy) are not well-known in the UK, but maybe better known in the USA: https://www.amazon.com/Things-Darkness-Essays-English-Translation/dp/9039001049/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=David+wolfers&qid=1628421166&sr=8-1

      I am glad you ‘caught your breath’ – that is what epic should be doing, and is what the sublime must induce in us if it is to be sublime. Much appreciated.

  8. Julian D. Woodruff

    A narrative of deepest feeling and boldest imagination, James. Such memorable images!

    • James Sale

      Thanks Julian – I am glad that this has so impressed you, and I especially like your phrase ‘boldest imagination’ – yes, be bold – let us not let our poetry be timid and mousey! On the pages of the SCP we shall roar like lions!

  9. Dr Tom Woodman

    Yes, James, these lines are stunning and very moving as other commentators say. As with Dante, most remarkably of all, the incident has a representative quality in enacting the evil of what has occurred but not without compassion for the perpetrators, who (as usual but not always) did not understand the meaning of what they did at the time they did it). So there is hope here but not the sentimentality of a full reconciliation.

    • James Sale

      Thanks Tom – it’s great that you get what I am trying to do. And the point about sentimentality is true; it is easy to fall into it. One thing about the journey is, that although it’s a vision, one is attempting to see the ‘object’ as it is, not as we wish it to be or we hope it is. In this way the narrative is not shaped by me but by another power.

      • Dr Tom Woodman

        Yes, that is definitely what comes across, James.

  10. Dr Michelle Fawn

    James, this was so beautiful and incredibly moving to read. I was particularly touched by your exploration of the strength in vulnerability. Psychologically it made me think about how we can sometimes seek the concreteness of materialism or wealth to protect ourselves from a deeper emotional scar that we carry or fear about ourselves. For me, the simultaneous delicacy yet strength of the ivory, then the butterfly and the blessing of forgiveness was such an incredible message of the courage it takes to explore the past and the strength in true forgiveness. The language throughout also mirrored this expertly, conveying the heaviness of the burden in carrying these experiences and transitioning to a lightness and space through forgiveness. This is a real blessing to read and such a gift to offer others from your personal experiences.

    • James Sale

      Thanks Michelle – really appreciate your response to this complex poem, and for me too the psychology is always important: the language wrestles to get it across. As Longinus comments on his Essay on the Sublime: ‘But passion requires a certain disorder of language’. However, the form keeps it in check!


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